I admit every time I hear about Flint, the news is never good. But it’s easy to have bad news overshadow all of the great things that are happening in this city. What started as a project to save one building turned into a massive rebuilding effort to revitalize downtown Flint and turn it into an art and cultural center. Greg Fiedler, CEO of the Great Flint Arts Council shares with us how an entire community came together to rebuild downtown Flint and how the Council is helping many artists through Genesee County to be able to launch their artistic careers.

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Transcript:

Greg Fiedler: Flint is the county seat.

Greg Fiedler: If the, if the county seat is not desirable, it gives the entire county a black eye, 

Greg Fiedler: So that’s why we felt it was very important. To improve the county seat and make it something that everybody in Genesee County can be proud of. 

Cliff Duvernois: So what makes Michigan a great state? I’m glad you asked. 

Cliff Duvernois: My name is Cliff Duvernois and I’m on a quest to answer that exact question. After 20 years, I’ve returned to my native Michigan, and I’m looking to reconnect with my home state. I’m talking to the people who are behind Michigan’s great businesses and top destinations, the same people who work hard every day to make our lives a little bit brighter.

Cliff Duvernois: And you Michigander are coming along for the ride. 

Cliff Duvernois: This is the Call of Leadership podcast. 

Cliff Duvernois: Hello everyone and welcome back to the Call of Leadership podcast today I am in Flint, Michigan sitting at, uh, something that’s actually really pretty special to just really the Hold the Flint community. And I don’t think this area gets enough props like it should. So I’m very pleased today to have, uh, Greg Feedler.

Cliff Duvernois: He is the president and CEO of the Greater Flint Arts Council. In Flint, Michigan with us today. Greg, how are you?

Greg Fiedler: I’m doing great, cliff. Glad to have you here today.

Cliff Duvernois: And why don’t you tell us a little bit about where you’re from and where you grew up?

Greg Fiedler: Well, I grew up in the Flint area. Um, I lived in the countryside for a while outside of Clio, Michigan.

Greg Fiedler: And then we, uh, moved into the city for a couple years and then my dad built another house in the burbs. So I’ve lived in all three situations here most of my life except for the time that I went away to college?

Greg Fiedler: I went to school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Greg Fiedler: Go blue.

Cliff Duvernois: Go blue.

Cliff Duvernois: Yes. They actually won this last

Greg Fiedler: Yes, they did. they did. They got a heck of a season going.

Cliff Duvernois: Yes. Very nice. Now you graduated from college, so let’s talk a little bit about the Greater Flint Art Council. How did it get started in the first place?

Greg Fiedler: Well, the, the Arts Council came from the, uh, the movement that was started by the John F. Kennedy administration back in the early sixties.

Greg Fiedler: Due to his untimely death, he was not able to carry out his plans. But Lyndon Johnson did carry them out after his death and formed the National Endowment for the Arts. In response to that the state art, The,

Greg Fiedler: The different states throughout the country started state arts councils and then localities started local arts councils after that.

Greg Fiedler: So most local arts councils were, were formed in, in the mid to late sixties. And, um, greater Foot Arts Council was started in 1967.

Cliff Duvernois: And so with, what was the mission of the Greater Flint arts council?

Greg Fiedler: Well, the mission has always been to grow the arts in Genesee County. 

Greg Fiedler: And that, you know, the different ways that we’ve done that I’m sure have evolved over the years because we have to always. Be mindful of what the needs are and where the focus is and, and that may change from time to time. But we’ve had a pretty good, a pretty strong focus on the direction that we’re going in, uh, since 1985. Actually, they started doing cultural planning way back in 1985. And, uh, our areas of focus have, have not changed too much since then.

Greg Fiedler: We. We’d give support services to local artists and help them build their careers. We give support services to arts organizations. We give support services to arts educators, and we do mass marketing programs so that the public will know what their options are, both as audience and as creators.

Cliff Duvernois: What I wanna do is I want to talk about the actual building, the location of where you’re at in downtown Flint.

Cliff Duvernois: It’s actually had a very interesting history in and of 

Greg Fiedler: Yeah. Yeah. It has a kind of a unique story to the, to building. Flint went through kind of a renaissance in the eighties and it, it didn’t really take, so a lot of the structures that they built went empty or, or were repurposed and.

Greg Fiedler: All the retail left and went to the malls. So this was like, it was a furniture store, a Peerless furniture company, and it was like the last main retailer, um, in downtown. There. There were a few clothing stores that are still in business today, but for the most part, all the retailers left and there was a fire in the building here.

Greg Fiedler: In the, in, in the late nineties, they passed the Civil Rights Act for people with disabilities. And there was, and, and they gave everybody in the mental institutions the choice whether they wanted to leave or stay because as, as long as they weren’t a danger to society, um, the new law said that we couldn’t hold him. Right. 

Greg Fiedler: There was one woman who was uncomfortable with that and she went to the courthouse next door, you know, across the street over here, county courthouse, and asked them, I wanna be incarcerated, um, how can I do it? And they said, 

Greg Fiedler: well, you have to. Prove that you’re a danger to society. And she said, well, like what?

Greg Fiedler: And they said, you know, like starting fires and stuff.

Greg Fiedler: Oh no.

Greg Fiedler: So she left the courthouse and she came over here and walked through the front door and she went upstairs to the second floor in the bedroom department and started a fire on one of the beds.

Cliff Duvernois: Oh my 

Cliff Duvernois: goodness. 

Greg Fiedler: So

Greg Fiedler: there were two buildings. The furniture company was occupying and the one where she started the fire burn completely down.

Greg Fiedler: And this one was only saved because of millions of gallons of water that were poured down through 

Greg Fiedler: it. 

Greg Fiedler: So at that time, the furniture company made the decision to move to the shopping district, uh, out on Miller Road and left this 

Greg Fiedler: building.

Greg Fiedler: And so it left the community. There’s this famous mural on the side of the building that advertises the verner’s bed beverage, and it’s, it’s fairly artfully done, and it’s it’s got a fantasy theme to it.

Greg Fiedler: It’s, it’s the verner’s noms storing casts of vers in their castle. And people just, you know, so many generations have grown up. It was painted in 1932. So many generations have grown up watching.

Cliff Duvernois: they were, it’s 

Cliff Duvernois: amazing what, what, 

Cliff Duvernois: uh, 

Cliff Duvernois: what 

Cliff Duvernois: people 

Cliff Duvernois: can 

Cliff Duvernois: get attached 

Cliff Duvernois: to,

Greg Fiedler: Right. And the, and so there was this conversation going everywhere.

Greg Fiedler: What are we gonna do to save the vers mural? I mean, I went to Kiwanis Club one day and you know, this had been going on for months and months, and the, the guys at Kiwanis Club were, go me, Greg, what are you gonna do to save the vers mural? And I’m like, whoa. When did it become my job to save the Vernors mural?

Greg Fiedler: Well, you’re the, the president of the arts council. Come on. 

Greg Fiedler: So I said, okay, here we go. And I called a town hall meeting and 80 people showed up at this town hall meeting. Now in the nineties, if any people showed up for anything, that means it was a really big deal and you had a pretty good chance of being successful.

Greg Fiedler: So i, I was very hopeful. You know, we, we didn’t have any assets back then, so, some of the artists stood up. during the meeting and they said, you know, what are we gonna do with this building? And the artist started saying, well, let’s make a permanent home for the Arts Council in this building. 

Greg Fiedler: Everyone liked that idea.

Cliff Duvernois: Wonderful. Up until that point, where was the greater flint arts council?

Greg Fiedler: Well, we had occupied, 

Greg Fiedler: A couple different spaces. Over the years, but at that time we were renting a studio in the front of the historic capital theater building.

Cliff Duvernois: Okay. so you’ve got public sentiment is behind keeping the mural, which is essentially part of the building. And at some point, The, the owners of the building were thinking, you know what, maybe we should just demolish the building get rid of it.

Cliff Duvernois: Right. 

Greg Fiedler: signed 

Greg Fiedler: a contract

Greg Fiedler: For demolition. what happened 

Cliff Duvernois: that?

Greg Fiedler: People started making pledges like right there in the meeting. Lawyers, people that worked downtown. I, came over, I, I knew that the trucks had already been parked out here. The cranes and everything. And, and the demolition company just happened to be owned by an old friend of mine that I graduated from high school out at Kearsley high School. 

Cliff Duvernois: High School.

Cliff Duvernois: Nice.

Greg Fiedler: Uh, Martin Bernes of Bernina wrecking, and, uh, I said, Martin, you know, I think we’re gonna buy this building.

Greg Fiedler: Can you, can you hold off on tearing it down? I mean, the crane’s already out there scooping the other building away the remains. 

Greg Fiedler: Martin said, you know, I’ll, he says, if you buy this building, I’ll cancel my contract and I’ll make a donation.

Greg Fiedler: So that’s kind of how it all started. Then we, the building was in a trust because the actual owner of the property had passed away.

Greg Fiedler: And his relatives were running the Pierless Furniture Company and so we were able to purchase the property from the trust and they were very reasonable with us.

Greg Fiedler: They had some insurance money for demolition, and so they subtracted the demolition money from the price of the building.

Greg Fiedler: And, uh, we started fundraising and the fire was in the, in September of 95, by March of 96, we’d raised enough money to buy the, the property and and it was ours, 

Cliff Duvernois: and this is coming from people donating businesses. Donating, just everybody donating because they wanted to save this building. 

Greg Fiedler: And, and the, uh, Cadbury Beverage company, the owners of Vers gave us a large donation towards the purchase. Almost, 

Greg Fiedler: well, actually they gave us half of what we needed. To purchase the building and then we, we started fundraising to re the building so we can move in and occupy it.

Greg Fiedler: And we, we had some very generous grants. Given to us at the time. Um, we got HUD money from the City of Flint was the largest portion of it.

Greg Fiedler: So, and we also got a large grant from, Capital Improvement program at the Michigan Arts and Culture Council.

Cliff Duvernois: And I know a lot of people out there are struggling and they’re thinking to themselves, how are we ever gonna find the money for this? How are we gonna, but it seems like. In your particular case, especially when it came to this building, that there just seemed to be a lot of organizations out there that were willing to donate. 

Cliff Duvernois: How do you go about finding those organizations or reaching out or did you have like a team of people that were helping you? How did 

Greg Fiedler: that 

Greg Fiedler: work?

Greg Fiedler: Uh, we had an amazing committee two architects Jackie Hoist and Ron Camp Bell chaired the fundraising committee to, to revitalize this building. And they did a phenomenal job.

Greg Fiedler: And of course we had we had. Small staff. Um, there were just a few of us on staff at the time cuz we were 

Greg Fiedler: a much smaller organization back then. And then we, we just, we had about a hundred volunteers and it was divide and conquer, you know, everybody brought their resources to the table. Um, we started approaching people, the arts council had a board of trustees and

Greg Fiedler: um, There you go. They helped shake the bushes and, and bring in some donations and, then at the last minute I was we were just finishing up with, uh, what we needed to do to move in here. And I was about $12,000 short. I sent out a message to, uh, the, uh, granddaughter of. Well, actually her husband was the president of the MO Foundation at the time, bill White.

Greg Fiedler: And I sent out a message to him and, and he asked his wife, Claire, if she would make up the difference for me. So , I had a large donation from, uh, Clairemont White, who’s the granddaughter of CS Mott. 

Greg Fiedler: That kind of sealed the. Paid off the last amount of the bills on the place. So when we moved in, we were completely debt free.

Greg Fiedler: And this was a small non-profit that had no, almost no assets. whatsoever.

Greg Fiedler: And overnight we owned property

Cliff Duvernois: Yeah. For our audience, we’re gonna take a, a moment to, uh, thank our sponsors and when we come back, we’re gonna talk with greg about some of the awesome things they’re actually doing in the community. 

Cliff Duvernois: Are you enjoying this episode? Then I’ve got an offer for you. There are many more inspirational stories that are lined up from ordinary people doing extraordinary things from all over the state of Michigan. I’d like to extend you an invitation to join our community. When you join our community, I will send you the top five interviews that people have really enjoyed.

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Cliff Duvernois: Just go to call of leadership.com/join The link is in the show notes down below and now back to the show.

Cliff Duvernois: Hello everyone. Welcome back. I am talking with, uh, Greg, and we’re at the Greater Flint Arts Council, and we just got done talking about the, the excellent community support that really rallied around to help them to not only preserve this building, but to actually restore it.

Cliff Duvernois: What was, what was some of the, the, the influences or some of the, the comments or something that came out with regards to just taking pride in this building and then this neighborhood for that matter?

Greg Fiedler: Well, you know, it seems like for the first couple months I wandered around here kind of in awe, 

Cliff Duvernois: as you would. This

Greg Fiedler: I couldn’t hardly sit down at my desk because we were renting a 1600 square foot studio and then all of a sudden I had 6,000 square feet. this with this giant gallery?

Greg Fiedler: Which I, I believe is the. Largest gallery in Genesee County for local artists, you know, outside of the museums. I’m just kind of in a, you know, how beautiful it all turned out. And, and I was out in the gallery one day and, and the president of the MO Foundation walked in the front door, uh, William White, everybody calling Bill.

Greg Fiedler: And, 

Greg Fiedler: uh, he had, uh, his assistant. 

Greg Fiedler: He said, would you sit down and talk to us for a while, ? And I said, well, sure. 

Greg Fiedler: You know, a big donor. 

Greg Fiedler: Yeah. 

Cliff Duvernois: like time for you. Sure.

Greg Fiedler: he said, you know, I’ve been watching you from the ivory tower, which is the MO foundation he was referring to.

Greg Fiedler: Right. And he says, I was betting against you. I didn’t think you’d be able to pull this.

Cliff Duvernois: be, boom. 

Cliff Duvernois: Oh, I love it 

Greg Fiedler: And uh, he says, now that you have, he says, I wanna talk to you about how you’ve done it. And, and I’ve noticed, you know, there’s a lot, been a lot of community support and a lot of media support, and I’d like to hear your ideas about how that could be turned into possibly renovating other parts of downtown 

Greg Fiedler: beautiful to, you know, to take this energy and turn it into a movement.

Greg Fiedler: I told him, first of all, all of the old retail families are sitting on their properties and speculating that they’re hoping someday that they’re gonna get some money out of these properties. I said, so the first thing we need to do is buy all these properties and get control of them.

Greg Fiedler: So that we can get ’em into the hands of people that will actually do something with them, so he kind of liked that idea and, and decided that we’d kind of move forward in that direction. but he assigned me to a consultant that he’d already been working with. Uh, But his name was Clark Tibbits.

Greg Fiedler: But Clark also had a home in Asheville, north Carolina.

Greg Fiedler: Well, just outside of Ashe. Where him and his wife actually lived most of the time. And so the Mott Foundation set up a committee and they, they paid for Clark and I to go around and kind of assess communities that had successful development programs and to formulate a model. 

Greg Fiedler: In Asheville, we found this non-profit development company that was actually acting as a non-profit and partnering with other folks to, and Asheville was way ahead of us, but their story was, very similar. To Flint. They had two industries that employed almost everybody in the community and both industries within a short period of time went out of business. 

Greg Fiedler: They had this nonprofit development company and they also had this huge festival called it’s called the Bell Share Festival. they were about 20 years ahead of us. 

Greg Fiedler: And when they started, they told us, and, and I, I imagine that they started in the seventies cuz they were about 20 years into it. they. 

Greg Fiedler: With 20% occupancy in their downtown area. And I thought, well that’s real similar to what’s going on in flint. and, and got them to thinking about redeveloping downtown was they had this huge festival, hundreds of thousands of people came there every year and it got all the businessmen looking around and going, man, we gotta do something about this downtown.

Greg Fiedler: But, uh, they formed this non. Agency and, and that was the model we brought back to Flint and, and they liked it. And so a couple of the, uh, downtown leaders bill Donahue, who was the president of the focus council, and Bill Kaya, who was the director of the downtown Development Authority got together and, and, and did the paperwork to start.

Greg Fiedler: What’s now called the Uptown Reinvestment Corporation here in Flint. The first thing we did was we got a grant from the state of Michigan for $800,000 and we were able to buy 10 of the empty properties with that right up front.

Greg Fiedler: And then the, um, the. um, mdot, Michigan Department of Transportation, uh, we were able to help the City of Flint get a big grant to, to redo the, the street scape. they relayed all the bricks, leveled them out, ripped up all the sidewalks on each side, put in new cement, all new furniture, all new lighting, and, and then the historical society members, uh, got involved and 

Greg Fiedler: they, they. The old Flint arches recreated and, and put back up and, you know, it just started to escalate. I had a seat on the board of trustees of the Uptown Reinvestment Corporation and bill White’s son Ridgeway was. I’d say kind of early in his career, was assigned as a staff person working with Uptown and, and he had a vision for some huge projects, so he just totally amazed us.

Greg Fiedler: He, he led the organization through, um, renovating the old Hyatt Regency Hotel and turn it into a student residence center for the college. And, there were a number of projects he turned on while he was on uptown. And all of a sudden, you know, we went from small projects to, to really huge projects.

Greg Fiedler: And, and in the meantime they got the local developers to form a for-profit. Division called the Uptown six. Uh, when it was first formed, there were about six of them and they called it the Uptown six. And so now the up the for-profit developers were leveraging funds to renovate the buildings that the non-profit had purchased.

Greg Fiedler: And so we all, we all became partners. 

Greg Fiedler: So it was pretty amazing how things fell into place and. People got excited and just one project after another started happening. 

Greg Fiedler: So it was a real, really exciting time. They’re still doing, projects.

Cliff Duvernois: Know, it’s just, 

Cliff Duvernois: I’m just simply amazed at what people can. When they work together and they got a, a singular focus and it, and it seems like just for like this whole area here, it just seemed like there’s so many people just came together and was like, we, we can’t, we can’t let this die.

Greg Fiedler: The four private partners were amazing. Some of ’em are Phil Schultz, Gary Horan, and uh, Troy Farra. And Gary shared with me some of the things that came out of one of their early meetings.

Greg Fiedler: And they said, uh, one of the things they did was they made a pact not to stop until it was. 

Greg Fiedler: And i, I just thought that was incredibly awesome. 

Cliff Duvernois: It is, what I would like to do is I want to talk about what, what it is that, that you’re currently working on, what it is that you’re doing. How do you help local artists that are in the community to, to get started to be able to launch their career? What are some of the programs that you have? 

Greg Fiedler: well, since they started uptown, a lot of the programs that we started had to do with attracting people downtown so that the new businesses that were being created would be successful.

Greg Fiedler: Sure. But also because we have this this mission to support local artists, we wanted to create things that would also help artists advance their career.

Greg Fiedler: So we started, uh, the Flint art walk, which before Covid, it’s a little bit less now, but it’s starting to build back up again. Before covid it was drawing over 3000 people a month. 

Greg Fiedler: Uh, all, all year long. We did it. We do it on the second Friday, so everybody knows it’s gonna. , we don’t hardly even have to publicize it, cuz on the second Friday, everybody knows they gotta come downtown. And, we not only create art spaces, we have like 22 partners. So there’s a lot of 

Greg Fiedler: stops that people can make to experience something that has to do with the arts, whether it’s visual arts or, or music or, um, book signings. Literary arts, there’s, you know, every place has a different thing that, that they want to do.

Greg Fiedler: And that’s all that’s required to participate is you have to do something that has to do with the arts to, so that you can be a stop on the, on the walk. 

Greg Fiedler: But it, it, it also fills up all of the, the clubs and restaurants downtown on that night. And Beautiful creates a huge amount of income for those, for those businesses, which also results in. Return business because once you’ve been somewhere and you’ve had a great time, you’re gonna go back there throughout the month. So the art walk had a lot, you know, played a really significant role in jumpstarting, downtown business retailers. 

Greg Fiedler: And then we also, uh, we started be because they, the story they told us in Asheville about the effect the festivals had. getting support for what was going on downtown. We, we started a program called the parade Festivals. 

Greg Fiedler: And our got a, got a grant from the MO Foundation to support festivals that were happening to put together a marketing package each year. That’s that. 

Greg Fiedler: Showed all the festivals together and we went out all over the state and with brochures in the welcome centers on the highway and in the restaurants and, and, we did television and radio and news print advertising, but we would always promote all the festivals together as a package.

Greg Fiedler: And part of that grant was an incubator to interest new producers in starting new festival.

Greg Fiedler: Within a year or two, we doubled the number of festivals that were in Flint. Before Covid at its peak we were up to like 22.

Greg Fiedler: Wow. 

Greg Fiedler: Sweet 

Greg Fiedler: Moses.

Greg Fiedler: Yeah. 

Greg Fiedler: A lot of those are still, still happening. I think we still have about 18 festivals here in the summer, even after. Those festivals have drawn probably close to a million people a year to downtown. So the economic impact has just been phenomenal. 

Greg Fiedler: we’ve also started a, uh, a lunchtime concert series, uh, called tunes at noon. 

Greg Fiedler: Okay. 

Greg Fiedler: Uh, I always felt like world class cities have music going on, and why not do it during the day here when everybody’s down here working?

Greg Fiedler: And we do 30 concerts in the summer, monday through Friday for six weeks.

Cliff Duvernois: Whoa. 

Greg Fiedler: And they’re in the, uh, the Wilson Park, which is right in between the farmer’s market and the University of Michigan Flint there.

Cliff Duvernois: I’m loving this recurring thing, this theme of, it’s, it’s, a very symbiotic relationship that the, the, the greater Flint Arts Council has with the neighborhood. 

Cliff Duvernois: Because what, what I’m seeing here is that it’s more than just, okay, let’s open our doors and hope somebody walks through the.

Cliff Duvernois: It’s, you know, how can we enrich the community? And because we’re enriching the community, then the Greater Influence Arts Council is, is more enriched. 

Cliff Duvernois: We’re able to help more artists, we’re able to help more businesses. So it’s very, you know, the lines are just blurred, right? This isn’t for profit or non-profit or, you know, business in a museum.

Cliff Duvernois: This is like, this is a very community wide effort. 

Cliff Duvernois: You know, one part here impacts another part here, and it’s, it’s very, it’s from my standpoint, it’s very strategic thinking, which is beautiful and. 

Greg Fiedler: Well, you know, our our mission is to serve the whole county. 

Greg Fiedler: But flint is the county seat.

Greg Fiedler: If the, if the county seat is not desirable, it gives the entire county a black eye, 

Greg Fiedler: So that’s why we felt it was very important. To, to improve the county seat and make it something that everybody in Genesee County can be proud of.

Greg Fiedler: But since then, our efforts to help the entire county have been bolstered because we worked with the Flint Cultural Center Group and. Some folks at the Burston Center and the McCree Theater and passed a millage in Genesee County that supports the arts.

Greg Fiedler: And the lion chair of the funds go to the larger institutions. But we have a substantial, uh, half a million dollars a year. We get to grant out to small arts agencies all over the county.

Greg Fiedler: So now we’re financially supporting about 25 agencies spread out all the way across Genesee County. And the cool thing is, is that a lot of the money that those agencies are spending goes to artists. And so that, you know, that’s supporting arts agencies is also supporting artists. So, the, the two are married, and those are probably the, the two most important parts of our, of our mission here.

Cliff Duvernois: Greg, if somebody’s listening to this interview and they wanna check out what it is that you guys got going on, events that are happening in the area, whatever that might be, what would be the best way for ’em to do that?

Greg Fiedler: Well we started an event website that’s free to anybody 

Greg Fiedler: who’s producing 

Greg Fiedler: an. And 

Greg Fiedler: it’s called genesee fun.com so if they, if they wanna know what’s going on, they just have to go to genesee fund.com and e events that are happening all over the county are, are posted there and they’re always current because every event has an expiration and it just automatically disappears when it’s over with.

Greg Fiedler: So it’s, they’re, they’ll always find something that’s up to date and fresh when they go there. 

Greg Fiedler: If anybody’s producing events remember to pro to, uh, list your event on genesee fund.com cuz it has a huge following and we built that following up since it was first started in about 2005.

Greg Fiedler: The county knows that that’s where they can go to find out what’s going on. Artistically and culturally throughout Genesee County, if they wanna know specifically about the Arts Council and what we do we have a website at Greater flint arts council.org. 

Greg Fiedler: We, we have Facebook page for the Arts Council on Greater Foot Arts Council. We also have a Facebook page. We’re the producers of the flint jazz Festival and it has a Facebook page and Our public radio station, w f a h 1 0 2 0.1 has a, a Facebook page.

Cliff Duvernois: Greg, thank you so much for taking time to chat with us today. I 

Cliff Duvernois: really do appreciate it.

Greg Fiedler: It’s been my pleasure. Cliff,